Data Centers

Squeeze the most out of a server investment

How maintenance and common sense can boost stability and performance

As a network administrator, you want to squeeze every penny out of your budget and make your hardware investments last as long as they can. In this Daily Feature, I’ll show you some ways to squeeze a little more life out of your server investment.

Keep the power coming
First, make sure your server has an uninterruptible power supply (UPS). A UPS does more than deliver backup power to your server in case of an outage—it also ensures a steady supply of clean electric power. The power provided by your electric utility can vary widely in voltage during the day.

You won’t notice these fluctuations, known as spikes and troughs, sitting at your desk. The fluctuations aren’t usually enough to cause lights to flicker, but to the sensitive electronics in a server’s power supply, these fluctuations can be like a slap in the face. These minor variations in power can even cause the server to fail over time. The UPS itself filters out the fluctuations and passes only the proper amount of voltage to the server.

Perform routine maintenance
Performing routine maintenance will make your servers last longer, just like it does with your car.

One of the easiest things you can do to maintain your server is keep its hard drives defragmented. As files become fragmented on your server, the hard drive has to work harder to retrieve them. A severely fragmented hard drive’s heads must move back and forth excessively across the hard drive’s platters rather than read data in one head motion. This rapid movement can wear out the drive’s servomotors, possibly leading to drive failure. Keep the hard drives defragmented and the drive heads won’t have to move as much.

One of your server’s biggest enemies is dust. Dust that gets inside your server’s case settles on the electronic components and acts as a blanket, trapping the heat given off by the server’s chips. Even in an air-conditioned room, dust can build up inside a server, possibly leading to heat damage.

Dust can also build up on the fans inside the server, such as the CPU and power supply fans. This reduces the fans’ cooling capacity and makes the fan motors work harder, which itself generates more heat and further increases the temperature inside the case. This additional work—and the extra heat it generates—can cause your cooling fans to fail, which will cause the server to overheat and fail.

You can easily prevent this by using a can of compressed air or a miniature vacuum cleaner to blow or vacuum the dust out of your server. However, be careful about removing the cover: If your server is under warranty or a maintenance contract, removing its cover may void your warranty or contract.

Invest in environmental protection
You can help control dust and heat by placing your server in the proper environment. A server in an air-conditioned and filtered server room will last longer than a server sitting on a dusty shelf on a smoke-filled factory floor. While a dedicated server room might be beyond your budget, there’s a lot you can do to safeguard your server.

You can improvise a server room by locating the server in a separate room or closet where you can install a dust filter. If no such room is available, you may want to invest in a special storage cabinet that includes its own filter. These filters can eliminate the dust that can overheat your server.

Air conditioning can help reduce dust while keeping your server at a constant temperature, or at least a temperature that doesn’t fluctuate wildly and that stays well within the server’s operating range. Just because the documentation says the server can operate in 100-degree temperatures doesn’t mean you should let it.

If the room or building you’ve placed your server in lacks air conditioning, you can buy special room air conditioners that will do the job. These aren’t like window units but are stand-alone devices about the size of a dorm room refrigerator.

Beyond heat and dust, a server’s worst enemies are human beings. You should keep your server in a locked location, whether in a special room or a locking cabinet. Locking up the server helps keep your network secure, but it also prevents accidental damage—like someone pouring a can of Coke into your server.

Upgrade rather than replace
Since most organizations don’t purchase servers configured to maximum capacity, there may be upgrades you can perform to make your server more efficient. Unless your needs have changed dramatically, adding resources to an existing server can be a better investment than purchasing a new one.

In a Windows 2000 environment, one of the best hardware investments you can make is in RAM. The more RAM you throw at a Windows 2000 server, the happier it is. When you’re deploying additional services on your server, you can improve performance by adding RAM. In many cases, the performance gained by adding more RAM to an existing server is greater than that gained by buying a new server with a faster processor but the same amount of RAM.

Another easy way to add life to your server is investing in additional hard drives. If your server is running out of disk space, it’s cheaper to add more hard drives, or to replace the server’s existing hard drives with larger ones, than it is to purchase a new server with larger hard drives. Likewise, because hard drives are one of your server’s few mechanical components and are thus among the most likely to fail, you can lengthen the server’s life by upgrading or replacing its hard drives.

You can also boost your server’s performance by adding additional CPUs, if it can handle them. Organizations often purchase servers that can handle multiple CPUs but don’t use that capacity due to initial investment costs. CPU prices drop rapidly once the chips are on the market, so you may be able to pick up a few extra CPUs on the cheap, dramatically boosting server performance without investing in an all-new, full-price chipset.

Find new roles for old machines
Even if you do purchase a new server, that doesn’t mean you have to throw out the old one. You can assign new duties to your old reliable server. By finding your old server some new work to do, you get more out of your investment.

The new duties you assign your server can be practically anything. You can use it as a dedicated print server, a dial-in server, or maybe even an intranet Web server. Rather that load up your new server with all of the duties of your old server, you may want to dedicate some reduced roles to your old server.

An old server can be a good platform to use as a test server. Even if your server isn’t strong enough to support a production environment anymore, Windows 2000 and Windows .NET minimum system requirements are low enough that most server-class machines built in the last two years can serve as test machines. You can use the server to test new operating systems or to test services you want to deploy in your production environment.

Finally, if you can’t use your server as a server anymore, you can always use it as a workstation. Even though most inexpensive workstations today are more powerful than all but the highest-level servers produced as little as two years ago, you still have an investment in the server. The old server is much better off running Microsoft Word in a secretary’s office than lining a landfill.

Pinch those pennies
Just because a server is a couple of years old doesn’t mean it’s worthless. As long as the server runs, you can squeeze the last penny of your investment out of it. If you take time to take care of your server, it will continue to provide years of service.

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